It’s been a few months since I first talked about cutting the cord and the landscape has shifted dramatically. Sling TV has become a better service while other players like Sony and Southern Fibernet have entered the national market. With the start of football season mere days away, I thought it would be a good idea to update everyone on the status of the multiple options available for those who want to give their cable bill the boot.
As I mentioned last time, there are still many things to consider before cutting the cord, like your household’s priorities, what devices you have, and, most importantly, what kind of internet service do you have with which to use these IPTV products. I highly recommend you review my suggestions in Part 1 before making a decision. Though it’s also ok to dive in head first too, all of the services I’ll mention today offer free 7 day trails with no strings attached.
Let's start with an update to the service I was using in my last story on cord cutting. One of Sling's big issues was that while it was a cheap way to get in the door on ESPN Networks, it really didn't have much else to offer. At the time I said that Sling had made claims they were working to expand their lineup, but that there was no way to tell if and/or when any of those deals would be made. I'm happy to say that Sling passed my own expectations and now has both Fox and NBCUniversal channels available on it's service. They even made a consumer friendly move of adding them as a separate package, so that their original plan of $20 a month for ESPN/2 access (among other Disney and Viacom owned channels) stays intact in a plan called Sling Orange. The Fox and NBCU stations (including FS1/2, regional FSNs, NBCSN, regional ComcastSNs) and the NFL Network (including NFL Redzone) are in a $25 plan called Sling Blue. If you get both plans, Sling drops the price to $40. The Sports Extra tier that includes SEC Network, all other ESPN channels (not including Longhorn Network) plus beIN Sports and Univision Deportes for you soccer fans also remains at $5. A plan configured to receive every sports station Sling offers comes to $45 a month. It's also still without any contract and can be canceled any time, though they do have a few deals going right now that will give you a discount on a Roku 3 or Apple TV, or even give you a free Roku 2 if you pre-pay a few months in advance.
But there are some drawbacks that are important for sports fans. While a Sling account will give you access to the WatchESPN service, they have not made the same deal with either Fox or NBCU, meaning that you will not have access to either Fox Sports Go or the NBC Live Extra. This is especially concerning right now as it means access to NBC's expanded online Olympics coverage is not available on the service, nor are NBC's Extra Time stations for Premier League matches or event replays for any other sport they carry like F1 racing. Another issue with Sling is that they still offer no DVR-type function beyond access to each station's on demand library, which still varies wildly from channel to channel. Also, their single stream limitation is still in effect, meaning only on device can be logged in and using the service at a time. That's a big problem for anyone in a multi-TV household.
From a technology standpoint, it's still a bit of a mixed bag with Sling, depending on the platform you use. The app on Xbox One is still bad, as is the app on the Amazon Fire Stick. But the apps on the full size Amazon Fire Box, all current model Roku devices, the Apple TV, iOS and Android devices, and the desktop app all seem to be working without issue. Personally, I use a mix of the desktop app, a current model Roku 2, and an iphone or ipad when I'm on the go, and I've had minimal issues over the summer. Sling is on seemingly every popular device and set top box on the market today, giving users a lot of options for using the service.
Just days before my last story on cord cutting, Sony rolled out the Playstation Vue service nationwide. Available in plans starting at $30 a month, Vue has access to channels from Disney, Fox, Viacom and NBCUniversal, among many others. Breaking it down from a sports perspective, the $30 Access plan has 58 channels, including ESPN/2, FS1/2, NBCSN, TBS, TNT, and USA. The $35 Core plan bumps that up to 68 channels, adding the regional FSN network in your area, ESPNU/News/SECNet, beIN Sports, Big Ten Network, and the Golf Channel. The $45 Elite plan is over 100 channels and adds ESPN Deportes, Fox College Atlantic/Central/and Pacific, Longhorn Network (in Texas only), and ONE world sports. Additionally, if you live in one of the major metro areas that Sony has a deal with, you will also get your major local over the air networks (ABC, NBC, Fox), with the tradeoff that all 3 plans cost an additional $10 in those select markets. All of their plans are offered without any contract and can be canceled any time.
(Sony has also announced that they will have NFL Network and NFL Redzone on the service in time for the start of the regular season, but it is not yet available at this writing)
Despite it's name, you do not need a Playstaion console to access the Vue service. The service is also available on the Amazon Fire platform and on Roku devices. Unlike Sling, Vue offers a "cloud DVR" service. You just pick the program you want recorded and Vue records it for you. You stream that recording back from Vue when you watch it, no recordings are stored locally. Also unlike Sling, up to 5 people can be using the service at once, though they all have to be at the same location. Sony uses some pretty restrictive location tracking to prevent people from sharing accounts outside the same household. Also unlike Sling, Vue includes access to the phone and tablet apps of nearly all the channels they offer, including WatchESPN, Fox Sports Go, NBC Live Extra, and even BTN2Go and beIN sports.
All of this sounds great, and a bit of a better deal than Sling, so why aren't I using it? As I mentioned, with some markets having access to local stations in their Vue package, Sony has to verify the location of it's users. While all of the details are not known, one of the ways they do it is based on your IP address you get from your ISP. For unknown reasons, Sony is unable to verify locations for users in Lafayette and the surrounding area of South Louisiana. For months, accounts would lose verification every few days and would have to be reset by calling customer service. After a few months of this, with Cox, the major cable ISP in the area, and Sony pointing the finger at each other and nothing getting done, Sony apparently decided to wash their hands of it and canceled all accounts in the area and banned new accounts from being created. ATVS contributor dr.awesome504 was a happy Vue user in the Youngsville area for a few months and was actually not having the issue, but because of Vue's blanket cancellation of all accounts in the area, he's back to using Sling. Things seem to be working fine in the Baton Rouge area and other parts of the state, but the service remains unavailable in South Central Louisiana with no word on if or when Sony plans to fix the issue.
Even with Sony's abysmal customer service in this matter, I'd still recommend the Playstation Vue service as the best option for cordcutting sports fans. The App access for Fox Sports Go and NBC Live Extra are essential, and the DVR functionality and multiple concurrent users in the same household make it the closest thing to replicating an actual cable TV service that I've seen. I personally plan to switch to them if they ever get their mess in South Louisiana sorted out.
Since I can’t tell you what it’s like to live with Playstation Vue, here’s Paul Crewe with his take on the experience.
After reading Podkatt’s initial cord-cutting piece and contemplating how exactly to cut down on what had become a monstrous cable bill, I too decided to make the leap. My priorities are slightly different than PK. Namely, I have a wife who enjoys a lot of television shows, so it was important I still be able to get access to those in some manner. My personal priorities were then a handful of shows I watch, HBO and live sports. We researched the options and, being owners of a Playstation already, Vue made the most sense, offering legitimately everything we needed at a fraction of the cost.
The only real “inconvenience” was having to switch to HBONow, which does not have a Playstation application. Fortunately, I do have a Chromecast, so watching HBO on my television is just a matter of streaming from my iPad app and Chromecasting to the TV. Not a huge deal.
As for Vue itself, I live in Chicago, so I don’t face the coverage issues PK described. There’s been no nonsense dealing with having to reset IP addresses and all that. The service itself has been mostly stable. There has been an occasion or two where I turn on Vue and it tells me the channel listing is not available. It usually resolves itself after a few minutes.
The more frustrating and complicated matter is the “cloud DVR.” At first blush, this is an amazing feature. And when it works, it surely is. The trouble is, it hardly works well. Up against live programming, it will often get thrown off. Best example I can give: if you intend to record 30 for 30, but before that an NBA game is airing. If the NBA game runs 12 minutes long. You are going to get 12 minutes of an NBA game, 48 minutes of the documentary and commercials and not the ending. So, you might say, “I can solve for that by just recording what comes on after it.” In theory, yes. The trouble is, the way the Vue functions is not like your standard DVR where you setup single recordings and have to do extra steps to setup a series recording. Vue automatically and only configures to record entire series. You then have to comb through all of your list of “My Shows” to find the first 48 minutes on the actual 30 for 30 “My show” and then the rest in whatever other program recorded. So, again, it’s all possible, but in this case a bit more of a chore. Even worse, we’ve had multiple recordings that didn’t really work. We had it, but it kept skipping back every few minutes, so you’d watch the same 15 second clip like 5 times. Frustrating.
The only other major complaint I have is that it can run a bit spotty at times when live watching. This is mostly stable as well, but there are occasions where it stumbles, but it usually resolves pretty quickly.
Lastly, we settled on the cheapest package (Access) to start, but I plan on switching to Core in a few months to get the SEC Network. I’m curious to see how easy it is to change plans and how it works with billing.
All-in-all, I’m pretty pleased. The DVR thing has raised a few frustrating moments, but we usually solve for it by just using whichever Network’s app or website player and Chromecasting it. If you are willing to deal with some of the fallout, I highly recommend it.
TV service through the internet is a booming business and there are always new players in the market. Southern Fibernet is an ISP based out of Atlanta that has been offering fiber-based internet for a few years. Recently they launched their own IPTV service called SFN TV Now for cordcutters that's available nationwide. Again, focusing on the sports stations, their $35 Popular tier has ESPN/2/SECNet, FS1/2, and the Big Ten Network. The $48 Max tier adds ESPNNews/U/Deportes/Classic, CBS Sports Net, and MLB Net. The regional FSN and NBCSN are not available on their service. Additionally, if you live in the Atlanta area, you can add all of your local major networks for $10. All of their plans are offered without any contract and can be canceled any time.
SFN TV Now is a very new service and has some of the growing pains that Sling and Vue have already been through. None of the NBCUniversal channels are available (that includes USA Network for all you wrasslin' fans). Also, it's only available through a few platforms at the moment, just Roku boxes and Android and iOS phones. They have plans to add Apple TV and Andriod TV apps in the future. Like Vue, SFN also offers a Cloud DVR service and allows for up to 5 concurrent users. SFN does not have any of the location restrictions Vue does, with the exception of limiting the local stations option to Atlanta-based users. SFN also does not include access to ANY of the online services of the major sports networks, including WatchESPN and the SECN+ service.
Using SFN's app on Roku is great, possibly the best user interface of any of these services. The guide is just like a cable box, including a live preview window that lets you keep watching a channel while looking through the guide. Their phone app also works great and, through a chromecast or Apple TV, can easily be streamed to a TV set. SFN is a pretty good service, and even better in the Atlanta area, but it's got a ways to go before I would recommend it to sports fans. The lack of WatchESPN and SECN+ access is a deal breaker, full-stop, and frankly a surprise given how seemingly every cable service in America is in the WatchESPN providers list these days. We'll keep an eye on SFN for now.
After a summer of coasting along as a cord cutter, things are about to get much more serious. LSU Soccer kicks off tonight (at Virginia Tech, sorry no TV) and the fall sports calendar begins in earnest. Can I make it through football season without cable TV in 2016? We're about to find out.
For clarity's sake, this is my current setup for football season. I'm on Cox Cable for internet service, paying $75 a month for 10 up/100 down service. I'm paying Sling $45 a month for the Orange+Blue package with Sports Extra. I'm using a Roku 2 to access both Sling and the WatchESPN/SECN+ service. For CBS games, I'll be using CBS Sports' own free streams of SEC football games through their iOS app (Live streaming of the CBS SEC Game of the Week is not available on any service, only through the CBS Sports website and their phone and tablet apps, though it is freely available.) Last time around someone asked how much bandwidth I use a month, so here's a chart from Cox's own data meter on my account (note that I recently moved in June.) I’ll preface this chart by saying that I use the internet a lot for my day job, so the usage totals are a bit higher than they would be for your average person. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the comments in case anyone has any questions.